The Key to Dog Training: Feeling Comfortably Stupid

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I was forwarded this great research article yesterday that I thought I would share with you all. Martin Schwartz wrote about  The importance of stupidity in scientific research. The article is worth the read (don’t worry it is a short one:)). In the paper, Dr. Schwartz addresses the need for us to be “productively stupid”. Honestly it made me think of many of my own students (I write that only with the best intentions for all of you). As dog trainers we can’t think that we must always have all the answers, we can’t be afraid to fail, and we must let go of the visualization of being perfect.  Schwartz closes the paper with this priceless truth;  

“One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel  perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the  answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and  emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.”

The key is to find a way to feel “perfectly fine,” while getting things wrong time after time. It is a key to our dogs as they learn to offer responses, fail and confidently try again, and it is a key to us as dog trainers as we realize there are no answers to be found by giving up!

Today I am grateful for Lynda, who is here to force me to take some time off and go to the spa today:)


  1. Beautifully stated. I remember being told many years ago, when in college, that one must “continually doubt what you KNOW in order to LEARN and GROW”. That has always stuck with me, and helps me when I feel STUPID… which is often 🙂

  2. Great post! I found this article the other day and I think it adresses a related issue: http://blog.futurelab.net/2009/02/quantity_equals_quality_if_you.html

  3. This brings me to the question I was going to pose to Bob — it’s something I’ve never quite been able to reconcile on a practical level.

    Where is the line between using errors strategically and rehearsing unwanted behaviour? Both concepts make sense, but out on the field, it sometimes seems like a very fine distinction or even a paradox. (That is, building errors into training by definition involves having or allowing the dog to do something “wrong.”)

    I’m thinking it all comes down to reinforcement(doesn’t everything?) , namely that errors must go completely unreinforced. In this way, rehearsal of unwanted stuff would (or should) stop fairly quickly and movement along the continuum toward the desired behaviour can proceed. But when doing something that has some sort of intrinsic reward, how does one use those errors — even plan for them — while at the same time avoiding rehearsal of something that’s not wanted?

    (Maybe this is just me being stupid. Yay me!)

  4. I know you don’t mean literally being stupid, right. But I couldn’t agree more, being too perfect means giving more than enough pressure to our beloved pet dogs and this doesn’t really help at all even on my experience.

  5. I was told years ago that if I never lost my balance, I wasn’t stretching my skills. Although this was said pretty literally in regards to my martial arts education, I’ve tried to apply it to the rest of my life. If I never feel off-balance mentally, I’m in danger of stagnating. If I fear looking foolish, I won’t try something new. If I don’t question what I know, what I know is probably trivial.

    • I love it Susan, thanks for sharing!

  6. When I think of maintaining my criteria, I find a profound difference between my pride, and my self-esteem.
    Pride makes me do things wrong, because I want to do and be correct. It makes me want everything, right now.
    Self-esteem allows me to humble myself, and enjoy the joy of it all.
    If I need to momentarily disengage to take time out to laugh with my dog, and to laugh at myself, then I’m thankful that I was blessed with that coping mechanism, at that time.

  7. Kathryn – I had the same concerns you do regarding repeating unwanted behavior vs failing – specifically with the weave poles for me where the dog was going again and again to the wrong entry and I was trying to let them fail but it was a very uncomfortable experience. (in fact if you’re the Kathryn I think you might be you may have even witnessed it LOL)

    I’m not sure the answer to your question but one of the things I do think is that I did not at the time have much of a foundation at all of shaping/training goofy things that really meant nothing to me. I think if I had been doing that since my dog was a puppy she would have learnt through those sessions how to fail and how to get rewarded. I think then when I went to train actual equipment there would be a certain work ethic already built in and everything would hopefully fall into place even though the equipment itself of course has a value.

    I’m curious as to what others would think when the thing the dog is failing on has really high value for them such as the tunnel which has crazy high value for a few dogs I know. No matter how high the reinforcement the person has the tunnel is still always going to be very reinforcing in and of itself for the dog so letting them repeat it more then twice gives me a queasy feeling in my stomach and I would probably choose not let them.

    I’m so glad I’m going to Tweener camp this weekend – I’m in need of a refresher and a swift kick in the butt I think LOL

  8. Train your dog at Say Yes and get in touch with your existential stupidity. I just love this idea(nice article, too). Every training session is really a little experiment. This blog reminded me get lost in the moments of training and watch for the discoveries. Thank you!
    I’m off to do some research…..

  9. “It is a key to our dogs as they learn to offer responses, fail and confidently try again” …
    Is there not a difference between “stupid stupid” and “enlightened stupid”? Because I confess that in another life I didn’t know beans about excellence in dog training and I bumbled along not teaching our dogs to offer responses. Trying to get our dogs to do what we want.

    Your blog on the other hand is “smart”! Everyone’s comments, your responses – a privilege!

    (Technological advances I’d love to see: in your competition videos, to be able to hear the commands you give, and see your teamwork in slow motion.)

  10. So the really smart trainers should strive to be as ‘stupid’ as our dogs? 🙂 Or at least as willing to be, in our search for the answer.

    Great article. Nice boost. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Well, well, well… Thank goodness for Lynda!! She is making the SMART move and making you go to the SPA to relax and re-energize! ENJOY!!! You deserve it!

  12. Hmm, I’ve always made a distinction between “stupidity” and “ignorance”. We’re all ignorant of something until we have the opportunity to learn. “Stupid”, to me, has always been being content to remain ignorant, unwilling to learn, and even worse, not being aware of our own ignorance and trying to act like we know more than we do. I think “productively stupid” falls into my personal definition of “ignorant”.

    One of my favorite professors in college once told me: “The only reason that I know more than you do is that I got there first”. Someday I’d like to let him know that I’ve adopted this as a mantra, and it got me through graduate school, it’s getting me through life, and it’s getting me through dog training, both as a student absorbing as much as I can from my teachers, and as an instructor, passing on what I’ve learned to my students.

    “Train your dog at Say Yes and get in touch with your existential stupidity.” I love this sentiment made by Susan Kennedy, and I think it look great on a Say Yes t-shirt; would rank right up there with “positive is not permissive” and “got D.A.S.H.”

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